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With former Vice President Joseph Biden standing as the last Democratic candidate against President Trump in the 2020 election, cannabis users, and advocates nationwide are left to worry about the future of marijuana policy in the United States. While no administration has been outstandingly in favor of cannabis, both Biden and Trump are among the many politicians who appear to recognize the importance in appearing pro-pot, but in reality, almost never actually vote or act in it’s best interest.
In 2008, as part of the Obama administration, Biden was present for the significant decision to not seek the arrest of marijuana users and providers as long as they are in line with their specific state’s laws. This change to federal regulation was a direct response to the Bush-era policy which stated that anti-marijuana laws would be enforced regardless of state law and is considered instrumental in allowing individual states to create and regulate their own medical programs. This largely has contributed to Biden’s more libral, left-leaning image in recent years, but in reality his allegiance is not so clear-cut. While his participation in such reform is noted, much of Biden’s previous political work completely undermines his more recent efforts in regards to marjuana policy.
During the 1980’s, the United States was already almost a decade into what Nixon coined as the “War on Drugs”. Many politicians advocated for legislation that demonized both drugs and their users, using threats of incarceration and even factually-incorrect propaganda in effort to combat what was made to appear as a rise in use. Biden was no stranger to these concepts. A major player in the anti-drug political rhetoric of the time, in 1986 Biden introduced the Comprehensive Narcotics Act, which included but was not limited to, expanding judicial authority in regards to seizing assets, impose mandatory minimum sentences for specific amounts of controlled substances while also increasing drug penalties across the board, and gave the green light for “enhanced drug enforcement assistance” which is a significant precursor to the militarization of American police forces.
Just three years later in 1989, Biden filed a bill which would have allowed the United States to have debts partially forgiven in exchange for a commitment to use those funds in an effort to combat international drug trafficking. Via increased measures resultant in gung-ho seizure of drugs, including cannabis, this bill fueled a violent and counterintuitive battle. That same year, Joe Biden also introduced the Federal Crime Control Act, again increasing asset seizure authority, requiring those charged for certain drug-related offenses to be held for sentencing rather than be granted bail. Offenders in addition were pursued without mercy, wherein the attorney general “aggressively use criminal, civil, and other equitable remedies...against drug offenders”
In the 1990s, the United States as a whole saw an increase of pro-marijuana opinions and legislature, with many states, including Maine, passing medical marijuana laws that are still in effect today. However, Biden was still not in favor, subsequently filing and supporting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the crime bill. Legislation which infamously is considered one of the leading contributors towards mass incarceration in the United States. Within the Act, anti-drug rhetoric pushes ethical boundaries, permitting the death penalty for certain drug crimes. Increased penalties for dealing in “drug-free zones” fed on systematic inequality, only propagating the issue even further through widespread federal drug testing for those recently released from incarceration leaving individuals stuck within the federal justice system’s wrath.
In 2008, less than one year before the Obama administration decided to favor state marijuana regulation over federal law, Biden introduced a resolution honoring the 35th anniversary of the Drug Enforcement Administration, even going as far as to show specific admiration for the administration's long-record of “aggressively targeting organizations involved in the growing, manufacturing, and distribution of such substances as marijuana.”
In more recent years, Biden has tried to brush the history in the shadows, relying on his relation to the Obama administration to change the minds of those who brand him as being more conversative compared to other Democrats. Despite past efforts and his continued attempts at appearing more favorable, Biden continues to allow his anti-marijuana mindset to show. Despite the majority of states allowing some form of legalized marijuana, Biden in 2019 insisted that there is not enough research being conducted to allow it’s federal legalization and that marijuana is a “gateway” drug inherent to leading users towards more dangerous substances. While quickly changing his mind after substantial criticism, there is little-to-no evidence suggesting that his words are not just rhetoric spoken for no other reason than to avoid backlash and diminish his conservative public image in contrast to his more liberal counterparts.
Despite having a much shorter political career compared to Biden, President Trump has managed to establish himself as being similarly ineffectual in regards to cannabis legislature. Despite claiming to favor the state’s jurisdiction over federal law during his 2016 presidential campaign, his administration has not only continued the federal prohibition of the substance, but also overturned the Obama-era decision to not prosecute marijuana offenses in states where it is legal.
In June 2018, Trump stated that he would “probably” support the STATES Act, which would end the federal prohibition on marijuana and leave it to the individual states to legislate, but over two years later, this has yet to be seen or even mentioned again. This highlights the reality of many of Trump’s allegiances, which is that he favors the status quo. Despite his favorable words and vague signs of support for the states’ ability to regulate marijuana laws, he continues to avoid direct questions regarding his administration’s opinion on full legalization and seemingly has no intent on pushing the issue.
As the Republican candidate, there has traditionally been a significant amount of support for anti-drug laws and pro-law enforcement policies, which indubitably has an impact on which issues President Trump will show support for and his silence on his topic is unsurprising. Biden, however, is recognized mostly in today’s culture by his role in the Obama administration, with many of his previous opinions being disregarded in favor of his supposed more modern interpretations. That being said, it is rather clear that neither candidate is a true advocate for marijuana reform and instead are more interested in using it as a talking point to draw support and appear more receptive of opposing opinions.
While 2020 may not be the presidential election that will bring about major change in the U.S cannabis industry, that is not to say that the smaller, local elections happening year-round will not be. Marijuana laws have grown and adapted significantly since their inception in the shadow of federal legalization, and it is essential to remember that those clamoring for your vote this fall are most likely not the ones who are going to bring about great change. But rather the local governments are composed of passionate, regular people who are willing to stand for what they believe, even if it crosses political party lines.
Maine Potcast Contributor